Blessed are the Debonair?
Sitting in the chapel of an Episcopal parish in New York City several years ago, I noticed that there were ten stained glass windows in the chapel, each depicting one of the Beatitudes [Matthew 5: 1-12]. As my eye moved along the row of windows, it stopped at the third, arrested in lexical surprise. Instead of the words, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” I found the phrase rendered, “Blessed are the debonair . . .” I was probably not the first pewsitter who snickered at the way a Park Avenue church had made Jesus sound like someone right out of the Social Register. Where else would you hear the New Testament equate meekness with savoir faire?
Knowing French a bit, I went home and looked up debonair in my Larousse. The preferred modern meaning of debonair in French is the one we’d expect, “d'une élégance nonchalante.” But there are older meanings of debonair that the French translators of the Bible must have had in mind. When Jesus says in our English Bible, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” it is rendered in French as, “Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!” In this context, debonair means something like, “of good manner”. This doesn’t mean that the debonair/meek are fashion forward. It suggests that they are humble, gracious, self-effacing.
Yesterday we observed All Saints Day, the Christian holiday that celebrates the full extension of the communion of saints in space and time. In popular piety, All Saints Day has morphed into an occasion to remember the dead. In its origins, though, the festival is about the full continuum of Christian saints, one that includes the dead, the living, those yet to come and extends geographically as well to include all the imagined corners of the earth.
It has always moved me that the All Saints Day reading of scripture climaxes with these twelve verses from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. The Beatitudes—the ten sayings of Jesus that begin the Sermon on the Mount—are in Matthew’s rendering a proclamation of the Good News paralleling God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus. These ten precepts tell us what characterizes the “blessed” (or in other translations, “happy”, “fortunate”) life. Those characteristics are, as Jesus always is, radically countercultural. The blessed/happy life exemplifies (among other things) poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, peace. Contrary to what we customarily think, the fulfilled life is not one of self-promoting assertive independence. The happy/fortunate fulfilled life is marked by openness, compassion, and an awareness of one’s fragility.
Given my upbringing, it’s not a surprise that I love old movies. When I was a teenager, Channel 9 in Los Angeles showed Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies every Sunday night, and I always used to stay up late watching them. As a bookish teenager, I was drawn to Fred Astaire as the absolute paragon of an elegance to which I aspired, as the epitome of what it means in our common parlance to be debonair, to be possessed of nonchalant elegance. Imagine my surprise when, in my late 20s, I was serving as the Bishop’s Chaplain in Los Angeles and saw Fred Astaire in the pews at an 8 a.m. service at All Saints, Beverly Hills. He was not singing or dancing or being in any way obvious. He was quietly sitting in a pew, faithfully saying the responses, quietly making his way through the liturgy. He entered and left without fanfare. In his deportment he was a model churchgoer—both receptive and involved—and an example of what it means to be debonair: not just meek but possessed of a good manner and humble spirit.
As we move forward from our All Saints Day observance, let’s strive to exemplify saintly qualities in our own lives. Being saintly doesn’t mean acting as if we have it all figured out. It means being meek, of good manner. It means seeing ourselves in solidarity and compassion with each other. It means acknowledging ourselves to be fragile, finite, beginners. It means being, in the best sense of the word, debonair.